“I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.”
— SS Colonel Hans Landa
“As a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream.”
— Laurence Bender
Every review I’ve read of Tarantino’s latest, mainstream or blog, takes it much too literally. No matter what one thinks of the film, to see all these earnest Jewish critics stiltedly commenting (in good faith, mind) on the film’s good or bad representation of WWII or the Holocaust, as if it were a statement from a major public intellectual that forced a reevaluation of established history, is both funny and painful. Under the logic of the public sphere — what Tarantino is really ‘exploiting’ — they are obliged, whether they want to or not, to come up with some sort of moral response to a meta-farcical action-adventure flick written and directed by a gauche white guy raised by a TV/VCR combo. Even Denby, who’s too smart to be drawn in, stops his critique at just this level, using the director’s immaturity, his arrested adolescence and nihilistic form of cinephilia as an escape clause.
I was quoted here as calling Basterds the “morally weightiest” of Tarantino’s films, and while I did say that (not that exact construction of course) it was only because I couldn’t think of anything better. As in the other four, ‘something else’ does emerge from IB‘s genre mashups and citation games, which I’ll get to. In the course of which I hope to point out two things that are often said of Tarantino but aren’t true: that his films are mechanically entertaining conceptual exercises (that is, non-ideological), and, corollary to the first, that his aesthetic concerns are immature (that is, uninterested in ‘serious themes,’ out of touch with reality, etc.).
Comparing IB to other recent Jewish violent revenge fantasies (Munich and Defiance) as Goldberg does in the second link above (and Alex further comments on) is instructive only insofar as it helps us identify ‘the other’ genre the film employs along with the standard Tarantino palette of’60s and ’70s exploitation flicks. Its resemblances aren’t formal in this case but ideological. Munich and Defiance indulge in historical fantasies of Jewish action heroes meting out punishment to cowering fascists/terrorists and feeling kind of bad about it. Then in a classic ‘negation of the negation’ they frame the protagonists’ ‘awareness’ of their loss of humanity as still further evidence of their heroism and the sanctity of their mission. All of this is of course perfectly compatible with the fascist self-image. And ‘serious’ American action films. And the comic books on which they’re based.
Admitting all of this is the first step to understanding what IB is up to.
The last chapter ends the film with three formally and narratively connected moments of ‘catharsis.’ The climax as a whole is, as in all of Tarantino’s ‘big moments,’ the result of multiple characters and storylines (each generated from different combinations of genre tropes) violently colliding with one another.
The first occurs via the film-within-a-film, the Nazi propaganda Stolz der Nation, at the premier screening for the German High Command and their special guests. Frederick Zoller is the star, playing himself at a sniper battle where he fought off a 300-man attack by himself from a ‘bird’s nest’ position on top of a bell tower. As we watch the lame, repetitive action, Zoller’s face lit up to look like a confused Wilhelm Meister, we get reaction shots of the elite Nazi audience: Hitler congratulates Goebbels on a job well done, almost bringing tears to the man’s eyes. Shot of Zoller taking aim, shot of an enemy tumbling down some stairs or out a window, Zoller’s reaction, close up on Hitler laughing like a kid. Etc.
The second occurs after two of the ‘Basterds,’ Donny and Omar, bust into the theater and start massacring the audience with tommy guns. The actor playing Donny is Eli Roth, better known as the director of Hostel, and the real-life director of the propaganda film that his character interrupts. Here the shot-reverse-shot combination from Stolz der Nation is repeated, minus the audience reaction shot: Donny shooting, Nazis dying, Omar shooting, Nazis dying, Donny shooting, Hitler disintegrating, etc. Every cut back to Donny zooms in a little closer — where Zoller was made to look noble, at times even reluctant, Donny looks like a savage animal.
This is a fairly basic relativizing gesture, only unusual because we’re seeing it in a Tarantino movie. The revenge plot that in at least some version runs through every film is here given its clearest formal expression. ‘Evil’ comes first, its subject (Zoller) the pathetic dupe of an ideology that never actually manifests in the film (no one ever says why they’re a Nazi). All we get are its signs, huge swastikas everywhere, Hitler and Goebbels as cackling archvillains. This is the pure or ideological form of ideology, which can only appear as a ridiculous cartoon. The Basterds’ formally identical act of vengeance is carried out by Jewish ‘others’ who are at the same time American, authorized by the state and educated by American movies and pop culture (Donny kills his victims with a baseball bat). They are dupes themselves, purely reactive, and not ‘humanized’ by good acting the way Tarantino’s characters usually are. The structural position left open for us is that formerly occupied by the Nazi cartoon audience, which allows us the privilege of ironic self-awareness, free to interpret this scene as public service, critique, whatever, without fear of emotional manipulation.
All characters appearing so far serve for the invisible audience as ‘idiots supposed to believe,’ buffoons who, through being cinematized, are permitted to unironically and unapologetically live out the cinematic fantasies in which Tarantino has been educating us over the course of his career. They are his version of the film critic’s horny, nihilistic, video-game-addicted violent teenagers, the ‘impressionable audience’ both public moralism and irony require to function.
The third moment comes at the end. The Basterds would not have succeeded if Landa, who instantly saw through their scheme, hadn’t made a deal with the American leadership to stay quiet in exchange for full pardon and a hero’s welcome in the U.S. But, rather than let Landa get off scot-free, thus rewriting history in his own favor (the rightful privilege of victors), the Basterd’s hillbilly (non-Jewish) leader Aldo Raine writes the truth back in, so to speak, by carving a swastika into Landa’s forehead. This is what he does to all Nazis he lets live, giving them, as he puts it, “a uniform you can’t take off.”
Where the Nazis and the Jewish Basterds are ideological dupes, Landa and Raine are not, and their showdown is verbal, far away from spectacular set-piece violence. Landa, thematically and visually linked to Sherlock Holmes (with his absurd Calabash pipe), plays the film’s plot like a chess master. That he’s every critic’s favorite character is not surprising. Raine, on the other hand, is a savage, part Apache even, whose M.O. includes the taking of Nazi scalps. He beats Landa not through Landa’s game of being smarter than the ideological rules by which others (think they) live, but by embodying his country’s exceptionalist ideology in spite of its arbitrariness. This is the film’s last surviving ethical ‘argument’: the Nazis aren’t Nazis because they’re evil, they’re evil because they’re Nazis. So Landa, despite his post-ideological pretenses, is just as much a Nazi as the rest. And we, who have been seduced by Landa (and, one might argue, Tarantino’s roster of amoral hitman heroes as a whole), are likewise punished, forced to take a side vis-a-vis our own compromised position as consumers of violent fascist fantasy. And as Raine scars Landa with this lesson Tarantino is also scarring us with it: after a disgusting close-up of the engraving accompanied by Landa’s screams, the final shot is from Landa’s POV, and the last line is Raine’s: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” But this is not quite an ethical judgment, or at least not in any conventional sense, as I will attempt to show.
This thematically climactic moment is also the anticlimactic resolution of its emotionally central narrative thread, which takes place entirely behind the scenes of the war. Its cathartic moment — the fourth — contains the deaths of Shoshanna and Zoller, survived by their two warring films going up in flames. Shoshanna, a Gallic Jew hunted by Landa, owns the cinema where Stolz der Nation premiers. Zoller arranges the whole thing because he’s infatuated with her. Her revenge plot, which runs parallel to the military one, involves trapping the Nazis in the auditorium and setting the theater’s archives on fire, while a reel of herself taunting her victims replaces the finale of Goebbel’s film — in American English, of course. Having only seen this once, I’m not sure if it’s suggested that Hitler & Co. could have escaped the theater if the Basterds hadn’t intervened. At the very least, the outcome of the their plot (via Landa’s betrayal) renders Shoshanna’s superfluous (even if the auditorium wasn’t barred, the High Command would still have died). Superfluous but beautiful, and the film’s only real tragedy. The Americans rescue her plan from failure while her film, doubly as the ghostly image of her revenge and the setting and occasion for the depicted fantastical exercise in wish-fulfillment, redeems the war’s ugly and castrating imperfections.
IB is then alternately a deconstruction of and apologia for the pleasures of propaganda, which the film presents as a fundamentally American genre, as American as killing Nazis. The transcendent moment of cinema-love that comes with the Revenge of the (Shoshanna’s) Giant Face (the title of the final chapter) burning up on the screen is an expression of art for art’s sake appropriate to cinema: a work of art is a propaganda piece for its official recognition as Art (a ‘masterpiece’), by asserting the arbitrariness of any distinction between it and non-Art. It’s often been commented that IB is an unexpectedly European film. Most of the film is not in English, and much of its pleasure and tension come from language issues, an area in which the Americans are completely out of their element. But (just like in Kill Bill) they still win.
If one were to reduce IB to a Jameson-style historical allegory (is this the only Tarantino film where it’s possible to do this?), it would look something like this: a fading (feminized, civilized) Europe preserves its cinema’s beauty by recording its self-destruction, acknowledging the arbitrariness of its fate, while a rising (masculine, half-savage) America appropriates power by disregarding the logical (‘ethical’) consequences of its own arbitrariness. IB thus authorizes itself to take that extra, illegal step beyond historical tragedy and aestheticized self-destruction typically glorified by European art film. The first by killing Hitler, and the second by refusing to accept the film’s ‘rightful’ tragic ending: the deaths of Zoller and Shoshanna and the escape of Landa. Here’s Tarantino:
“Now, when it came to writing this movie, naturally, I came across some of those roadblocks. And one of them was history itself. And I was more or less prepared to honor that. Until I came up actually against it. And I go, ‘no, I refuse!’. I’ve never done that before, and now is not the time to start. And what I mean by that is this, I just thought that my characters don’t know they’re part of history – history has not been written yet. They don’t know that there’s things that they can and can’t do. There’s no can and can’t, there’s only action and reaction.”
The film is run through with the sense that only an American film can do this, can master narrative causality by becoming the first among its slaves: though no onscreen American character really drives the action in any significant sense until the very end, no event in IB is allowed to pass that isn’t authorized by the U.S.A. Therefore only America, as the sovereign of Hollywood cinema’s narrative logic (which has always been just as international in style as this film is), can exceed it, and deliver the audience its greatest possible pleasures. Cinematic pleasure is defined as American. Again, not because America is good, but because good is American. When other countries make a ‘fun’ or ‘crowd-pleasing’ film they can only do so in reference to American cinematic conventions. With IB, the ‘meaning’ of the Tarantinoverse is finally clear: the U.S. rules cinema, and the U.S. cannot die until cinema dies a second death.